My Speech Before the Movie Remember the Titans

I sat cross legged on the desk in front of the room. It was a minute passed the start of class and I was silent. Some students had just come in and were getting settled. I waited. My silence had an effect on the room. Conversations in the back of the class slowly stopped. The students in the front of the class looked at me wide-eyed. When I had 99% of their attention I said:

Before this job I was a crisis counselor. And one day, when I was on-call, I went to a house and the student they expected me to counsel was 350lbs. And she was stark naked. I stood in the doorway of her apartment building, and she was naked, developmentally delayed and didn’t speak English because she wasn’t from this country originally. And I thought to myself, “what the fuck do I do?” Because nothing in my schooling prepared me for this. (class erupted into giggles).

And I’m sitting here in a similar situation. Because this is the first class I’ve taught where, on an individual level, I really like everyone. I came to be a mental health counselor because of a belief in unconditional positive regard, and that means that no matter how many times you fail your English class, or keep having anxiety, I will not judge because I see the essence of each one of you and it is amazingly awesome. And yet, I work for an insititution that systematically oppresses young people, and expects conformity over individuality. And so I’m torn. Because on an individual basis I think that most of you will be ready to progress, but for some reason the classroom dynamic isn’t there, and so I really don’t know what to do. But I’m sitting here wanting you to know this, because I have a tendency to hide behind anger and annoyance and if you were all just dicks to me I could write you off and not be upset if you failed. But that’s not the case, and so I don’t know what to do. But I do know that yeserday a teacher called one of our students (not in this class) pathetic, and worthless, and I am extremely protective of you because I want you to achieve your goals…and be successful…no matter how you define that for yourself. But my job is to make an assessment on whether you are ready to advance to the next classes, and we aren’t there yet as a class. And I needed to be vulnerable and share rather than blindside you at midterm evaluations. Because I have enjoyed getting to know each of you, and I enjoy joking and our discussions, and your writings…and yet it still seems like there’s something missing. And so we can discuss it as a class, or we can just take some time to think about it, but I’ve never been in this place before, and I feel stuck and don’t know how to move forward.

I could have heard a pin drop the room was so quiet.

And then when I was done, a student spoke, and he said:

“yeah, it seems we still sorta have a highschool vibe in here.”

And another asked if it meant they needed to just be quiet and listen more, and I said that wasn’t it entirely. And another said that she felt I was a different type of teacher, that I cared, and that the other professors won’t care and could just fail them. And another said she really liked how comfortable people were sharing and that it felt good to her.

I told them they weren’t getting in trouble, and that this wasn’t a bad or shaming lecture, but that it was something I was feeling and wanted to share. And the body language was at least 85% engaged and seemed to be in agreement, even though some of their honest verbal feedback had a slight edge of defensiveness (which is understandable).

And so, not to beat a dead horse, I left them sitting in that place of vulnerable sharing and without a resolution to get started on our lesson for the day (as I’m still subbing for my co-teacher) and we watched Remember the Titans, which was supposed to go along with our lessons on diversity, but also, in a strangely coincidental way, went along with this idea of rising to a challenge, and changing, and becoming a team and people that we can be.

Results are pending on whether this worked. Or if they even heard me. Or if the students I wanted to hear me heard me. But I did something different today, leading from a place of honest vulnerability, rather than my typical sarcastic bravado and flippance. I hope they noticed. I hope they heard the message at the heart of it…that they are worthy.

The Evils of Tenurehood

My stomach is in knots. I just received an email from a student, saying she had recorded her instructor (another instructor in MY DEPARTMENT) calling one of the students “pathetic” “sad” and “ain’t got no mind.” And I am both furious, and powerless, because the beast of TENURE is alive and well on this college campus.

See, I’m a part-time, adjunct faculty. Sure I teach 15 credits, which is considered by many to be a full-time load, but I’m classified as adjunct. And the other two days I work I am classified as…classified, which means I’m paid hourly. Yes, my paycheck is strange and hard to sort out, but this isn’t about me. This is about working with students who are ‘at-risk,’ who are at the last point in their school career and might not have the internal strength to make it 12 weeks being called ‘pathetic.’ I know I give my students a hard time, and drop the F-bomb too many times to count in a given lecture, but I care deeply about each of them. The kid on the spectrum with an i-phone strapped to his wrist, or the girl who gave birth in the last week of class, or the gangbanger who had been in prison for 5 years.

None of my students are pathetic.

Sure they get on my nerves, but I care deeply about them.

And I want to protect them from the world, and don’t feel I should have to protect them from other instructors here on campus…especially not one in my own fucking department.

I might be shaking as a write this.

Because, while I read the tenure emails and hear all the bitching about adjunct faculty and lack of true benefits and yada yada yada I also feel a tiny bit of relief that I’m not tenure-track. Sure it makes the ultimate job security a little shakier, but I also trust in a karmic safety net that if I couldn’t continue here, I would be able to continue somewhere. And so, frankly, at this point, I’m not seeking a tenured position. My good friend, who also works here, and is knee-deep in the tenure process, is a first hand experience of why I don’t want to go through the hoops (at least not right now).

But mostly I’m so frustrated at how tied my hands our to the injustice that this instructor is causing. My boss has no authority, because he’s only over part-time adjunct faculty. And the deans (because yes, there has been more than one) have basically said ‘wait it out until s/he retires,” which is coming soon…but not soon enough.

While standing in the cold cooridor telling my boss about this recording, I felt so helpless that the institution is basically saying, “it’s okay THAT kid’s being raped, because it’s not MY kid,” and hoping the problem goes away. It feels like the fucking Catholic Church sex abuse scandal and I don’t understand why we’ve set up a system of ultimate power and authority that cannot be questioned.

I want no part of it.

If I am not a good instructor, or I am being horrible to students, then fire me.

Roles & Boundaries in Higher Education

As an educator, I have to remember that I am not a counselor, even though much of my class is built around soft-skills and information that I would explore and work on in a counseling relationship. But, I am an instructor, and it is imporant for me to know the difference, as well as to create and stick with an educational boundary that isn’t quite like the boundary I’d set with a group therapy session.

Of course I knew that my counseling informed my instruction, but it wasn’t until I was processing a student-student conflict that happened last week in class (of which I had felt I handled it badly and was in triage mode the rest of the class period, as well as ruminating all weekend) that as an educator I actually handled myself very well. But, as a counselor, I was holding myself to this supremely high expectation that is not reasonable given my circumstances.

And, in my role of adviser, I am noticing my boundaries loosening quite substantially in the year that I’ve been there. I’m beginning to feel ‘invested’ in these student’s lives, so when one is crying in my office because of crippling anxiety, or proudly sharing their name change to their biological family heritage, I’m finding myself caring, which isn’t to say that I didn’t care before, but I had built a strong mental boundary to eliminate lying in bed at 3am wondering how they are doing or what might help them be more successful. I know the student relationships are what feeds me, but there is the phrase ‘death by chocolate’ for a reason. And the crippling sadness and despair found in many of my student’s is having an effect.

So how do I find the balance? Less counseling in the classroom, in terms of what I expect of myself emotionally, and more counseling in the advising office, in terms of how I deal with boundary issues. But I’m not entirely sure how to do that…

Thoughts? How do you navigate boundaries and self-care and the various roles you have in your life?